FTC Warns Eye Doctors to Provide Prescriptions for Free, as Required by Law
Last updated March 2, 2023
After an eye exam, the doctor must give you a copy of your prescription for free and with no strings attached—whether you ask for it or not. It’s the law, required by The Federal Trade Commission’s Contact Lens Rule and the Eyeglasses Rule.
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For glasses, the patient must receive a copy of their prescription after the exam. For contacts, the doctor must provide it after the fitting is complete. Properly fitting contact lenses may take more than one visit, and there’s often a fee for it that’s not included in the charge for the eye exam.
The Contact Lens and Eyeglasses rules were designed to enhance consumer choice and encourage competition by making it clear that a patient does not have to buy their glasses or contacts from their eye care professional. Having the prescription makes it easy to shop around for the best price, and for eyeglasses, the style you like.
“You have a right as a patient to own the prescription to your contacts, and that is really the basis for why this rule was created,” said Dr. Marlon Maus, an adjunct professor at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “You have to pay for the exam, but you do not have to pay extra to actually get a copy of the prescription.”
In late February, the FTC sent cease and desist letters to 24 eye care prescribers warning them that, based on customer complaints, they appear to have violated the Contact Lens Rule, and in some cases the Eyeglass Rule, by not providing patients with copies of their prescriptions. Consumer complaints also indicated, the letters said, that patients were required to make full payment at the time of service to get their prescriptions, even though they’d provided proof of insurance.
The FTC’s letters noted that violations of these rules may result in legal action, including civil penalties of up to $50,120 per violation. The commission did not disclose the names of the eyecare providers it warned.
The Contact Lens Rule prohibits eye care prescribers from requiring patients to buy lenses from them. They are also prohibited from charging additional fees or requiring patients to sign a waivers or releases in order to get their prescriptions at the end of the lens fitting. According to the FTC: “If the prescriber is willing to sell you lenses, that means the fitting is complete.”
A prescriber who has a financial interest (direct or indirect) in the sale of contact lenses must ask patients to confirm they received their prescription by signing a receipt.
Your prescription must include specific details, such as power, material and/or manufacturer of the prescribed lens. If you wear a private label brand or store brand (often sold by optical chains), the prescription must include the brand name, name of the manufacturer, and the name of any identical lens from the same manufacturer, if that applies.
With contact lens prescriptions, the details are critically important, Dr. Maus told Checkbook, because lenses come in different shapes, thicknesses, and properties, such as those designed for people with dry eyes.
“So, it's not just the strength. You can be a minus two and I can be a minus two, but your contacts would never fit me,” he said.
You have a right to a paper copy of your contact lens prescription; if you’d rather have an electronic copy, you’ll need to agree to that in writing or electronically.
Under the Contact Lens Rule, a company that sells contact lenses cannot fill an order unless it has a copy of the prescription or verifies specific information with the prescriber. If you need another copy of your prescription, or a third-party seller requests a copy or verification (with your permission), the eye care professional has 40 business hours to respond.
Most of the alleged violations noted in the FTC warning letters involved two issues: Contact lens prescriptions that did not have all the required information, so patients could not shop for their prescribed lenses or identical ones; and improper responses to third-party requests for prescription information.
For its evaluations of eyecare companies, Checkbook’s undercover shoppers found huge variation in prices from practice to practice for the identical orders of contact lenses. If you already wear contacts and are replenishing a year’s supply and not changing brands or type, there’s little reason not to grab the savings by buying from a low-cost supplier, such as Costco, Walmart, or an inexpensive online seller.
More Info from the FTC: Buying Prescription Glasses or Contact Lenses: Your Rights
More Info from Checkbook: Opticians, Optometrists, & Buying Eyewear
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He has been protecting consumers for more than 40 years, having covered the consumer beat for CBS News, The Today Show, and NBCNews.com. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.